What is Malware?

The word "malware" is the shortened version of "malicious software". The term is used to describe any software designed to cause harm or damage to a device or network. There are dozens of different types of malware, and each has the potential to do serious, potentially irreparable harm to your devices and sensitive data.

If you need to know more about malware, including what it does to your computer and how to prevent malware attacks, you're in the right place. SUPERAntiSpyware has been protecting PCs for two decades – that's 20 years of experience in combating malicious software. So, trust that you're in safe hands, and let us share our expertise.

What is malware? A comprehensive definition

Malware, AKA malicious software, is what we call any program, software, or code that has been created for the purpose of intentionally disrupting computers and other smart devices. This disruption can come in the form of gaining unauthorized access, causing damage, or stealing data, money, or personal information. Malware is a blanket term, and lots of different types of cyberattacks fall under the malware umbrella.

Cyberattacks and malware have been growing more sophisticated as time passes, and increasing in frequency as the technology to create these viruses becomes more accessible. There was even a notable spike in cyberattacks in 2020, when even criminals were forced to work from home.

In recent years, malware has been taking advantage of the ever-expanding Internet of Things (IoT) to infiltrate multiple devices through one gateway, and has in some cases even become fileless – operating entirely in system memory and not leaving a trace of its activities. To combat these innovative new threats and stay one step ahead of their progress, PC protection must constantly evolve.

While our current malware concerns are firmly in the present, don't be mistaken in thinking that malware is a 21st century problem. It has a longer history than many would assume.

What is the history of malware?

Technically, malware predates the invention of the Internet. The first theoretical suggestions of viruses and malware were being discussed as early as 1949, by the foremost thinkers of the time such as John Von Neumann.

The first "malware" (which wasn't designed with malicious intent, and was simply made to move between computers and replicate itself) was called Creeper. This worm was designed in 1971, and was quickly followed by Reaper in 1972, the first antivirus software, whose purpose was to chase Creeper down and delete it.

As the Internet developed in the 80s more malware started being produced and spread for specific, more nefarious purposes. Worms with the ability to spread via hardware and email were created. Worms can replicate themselves and move between devices, running in the background in a way that caused computers of the time to crash. There were even the first instances of ransomware in the 80s, with encrypted files being held hostage and only released after physical money was mailed to a P.O. box.

From the 2000s to the 2010s, as technology continued to develop, PDAs, laptops and smartphones provided more and more opportunities for malware to reach people's sensitive information and personal funds. But as devices became smaller and more intricately linked to our lives, cyberattacks seemed to get bigger. In the past decade, not only have individuals been under threat from malware, but governments, national health services and energy providers have all been targeted with varying levels of success.

One of the methods that enabled these new attacks were the use of botnets. Botnets, networks of compromised devices, are controlled by a remote "botmaster", and grant this controller access to all of the devices they infect. They're hard to detect, and are perfect for Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks – cyberattacks where the infected bots bring down servers with an overwhelming amount of traffic. Whatever the service is that they're disrupting, it is usually easier to pay off attackers and restore business as usual.

So while the rates of specific forms of malware are fluctuating - such as the use of ransomware dropping off quite significantly after a peak in 2021 – it's estimated that more than half a million new pieces of malware are detected by experts every day. It has evolved from a theory that a program could replicate itself in the same way a biological virus could, to a tool in a crime that costs people billions of dollars in damages every year.

What are the different types of malware?

Here are some of the different types of malware.

  • Viruses – Viruses are programs that can spread through infected files, shared networks, or removeable media – they usually need some kind of user interaction in order to spread. They cause damage by corrupting or deleting files, stealing data, or disrupting system operations.
  • Worms – Worms are a form of malware that can self-replicate and spread without any user interaction. The insect-like name conveys the nature of how they can easily infest devices. They can overwhelm a system by consuming bandwidth and impacting device performance.
  • Trojan horses – This malware is named after the Trojan horse of Greek mythology, in which Greek soldiers successfully took the city of Troy by hiding inside a giant wooden horse that was wheeled in through the gates in the guise of an offering. Similarly, Trojan malware disguises itself as legitimate software to trick people into installing it. From there, Trojan horses can take down your defenses to make it easier for other cyberattacks, and do damage to your files and system.
  • Ransomware – As previously mentioned, ransomware encrypts files and holds them for ransom, demanding payment in return for the safe restoration of the files. This kind of malware poses a serious threat to businesses and individuals alike, as the threat of stolen data being published can cause further problems.
  • Spyware – As the name suggests, spyware is malware designed to spy on a user's activities. Everything from browsing history to individual keystrokes can be viewed by the attacker, meaning passwords and other sensitive information are theirs for the taking. This data can then be sent on to third parties without the user's consent, or even knowledge.
  • Adware – Adware is software that causes unwanted adverts to appear, often trying to direct users to malicious websites. Too much adware can impact system performance over time, and sometimes it can even change your browser settings without your knowledge. It is one of the most prevalent forms of malware, but thankfully one of the less dangerous ones – provided you don't follow any links.
  • Botnets – As mentioned above, botnets are networks of compromised computers or other devices, controlled by a single botmaster. They can distribute other malware, launch coordinated attacks, and allow their botmaster to steal sensitive information.
  • Keystroke loggers – This malware records the keys used on your keyboard, making information such as passwords and credit card numbers easier to steal. They can even be used for espionage and to spy on private messages, posing a threat to your privacy as well as your savings.

Why is malware dangerous?

Malware poses a danger to individuals, businesses and governments - there's a risk for anyone to fall victim to malware-driven schemes unless the proper security measures are in place. Here are some of the threats posed by malware.

Data theft

This is often the primary concern whenever malware is detected, simply because with the right data comes access to any and all sensitive information that has ever passed through your device. This includes bank details, passwords, personal documents and – if you're using a work-allocated device – company data and files.

When your data is stolen through a cyberattack, it can then be used to commit identity theft, financial fraud, or is sold on the dark web or other underground markets. Rather than stealing money directly from individuals and companies, cybercriminals will steal their data and force them to pay for the privilege of getting it back.

Financial loss

Of course, there are the cybercriminals who do just go straight for the money. Whether this means stealing money from bank accounts, carrying out fraudulent purchases, or costing people money in lost data and time, financial loss is one of the most devastating results of a malware attack. The average amount of money lost to cybercrime for individuals is just under $4,500, and depending on your insurance this cannot necessarily be returned.

Disruption of services

Loss of productivity due to the disruption of computers and networks is another side effect of malware. For an individual this can be an annoyance, but for whole businesses or government sectors the impact can be devastating. Hindering system performance, corrupting files, or crashing applications are all ways in which malware can prevent people from carrying out their work.

Infringement of privacy

Malware has the potential to seriously compromise your privacy, giving criminals access to your personal information and your daily activities - it can even allow cybercriminals to take control over your webcam or microphone, leaving you vulnerable to harassment and exploitation. Feeling watched is never fun. Nor is realizing your data has been taken without your consent and used against you in targeted advertising. Even if no long-term damage is done, the knowledge that your personal information can be accessed so easily can leave a lasting impression on you mentally and emotionally.

Reputational damage

If you're a business or self-employed, the news that you've been a victim of a cyberattack will likely have professional repercussions. It suggests that you don't take cybersecurity seriously, and that any data potential clients might need to store with you could be vulnerable to theft. Of course, you might have just been the victim of a freak attack, but clients will have to act on what they can see – the fact that someone successfully used malware against you.

Who is targeted by malware?

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of digitalization is the fact that almost anyone can be the target of a malware attack. Anyone who uses computers, smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices is vulnerable to malware – and nowadays these devices are an essential, unavoidable part of day-to-day life.

Individuals can be the targets of small-scale malware attacks. Malicious actors – the perpetrators behind the software – may try to steal personal information or financial data from individuals. This can be used to commit crimes such as harassment and fraud.

Businesses both small and large can also be the victims of malicious software. They present more of an opportunity for financial gain than individuals, as there are usually greater consequences when sensitive corporate data is compromised.

Government agencies and political parties are prime targets for malware attacks. While it sounds like something only seen in Mission Impossible or Bond, the most advanced malware can be used in acts of espionage and pose a threat to national security. Acts of cyberwarfare such as this can even be used to support other invasive tactics, as Russia has been seen implementing against Ukraine.

Critical infrastructure such as healthcare, finance and energy sectors can also be vulnerable to malware, and the consequences of these attacks are often far-reaching because of how interconnected and vast their systems are. Banks, energy providers and even hospitals are frequently the target for cyberattacks. Not only do attacks on these institutions compromise people's personal data, but they can also cause a direct risk to life by preventing systems from operating properly.

Educational institutions such as colleges and universities are targeted for the intellectual property and personal details they store. Because educational organizations such as these tend to have vast internal networks managing everything from assignments to payroll, malware attacks can be very disruptive.

How can malware affect my business?

We've touched on the ways in which malware can harm a business. It's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security, believing that a cyberattack would be unlikely to ever happen to you –but these detrimental effects can impact businesses of all sizes. If you're a business owner concerned about the risks of malware, it can help to know what could be at stake in the event of an attack.

  • Financial losses – as previously mentioned, financial loss is probably the most obvious and one of the more distressing results of a malware attack. Money might be stolen, you might lose out on revenue, or you might end up spending copious amounts of money to restore your computer systems.
  • Damage to your business' reputation – the negative publicity associated with cyberattacks might damage your competitive edge, with customers losing faith in your ability to protect their sensitive information.
  • Loss of intellectual property – depending on the nature of your business loss of intellectual property (IP) such as research or trade secrets may be a concern. This can have long-lasting effects on the trajectory of your business.
  • Disruption to operations – damage and disruption to your business' infrastructure can prevent you and your employees from performing your jobs. This could cause delays in your work and impact your customer service. If you rely on any kind of global supply chain, malware can impact inventory management and delivery schedules.
  • Compliance and legal issues – data breaches of sensitive personally identifiable information might result in regulatory investigations. In the worst-case scenarios, these can result in fines or other such legal action.

How does malware get into devices?

We've gone into detail about the different types of malware, but how does this malicious software make its way into your devices? Like many forms of crime, malware is all about exploiting vulnerabilities, be it in your software, hardware, networks, or even human behavior.

One of the most common ways in which malware can gain access to your devices is through email attachments. Spam and phishing emails will pose as reliable sources and trick users into accepting downloads and clicking on malicious links. Downloads such as PDFs or compressed files might contain malware which is then imported directly into your device.

If you follow a malicious link, the website you're taken to might execute something known as a drive-by download. By visiting a compromised website, you can automatically trigger a download and the execution of malware, often without your knowledge. Even if you're quick to exit the website and don't follow any further links, the damage may have already been done.

These kinds of infections are possible largely because cybercriminals are getting better at impersonating trustworthy sources. This could mean posing as a friend, family member or colleague in an email and convincing you to share information, or presenting as a legitimate, familiar business (such as your service provider). Cyberattacks such as these really hinge on taking advantage of human behaviors – for example, if you weren't well-versed in cyber threats and believed you had received an email from a family member wanting to show you a photograph, why wouldn't you look at it?

Cybercriminals also take advantage of software vulnerabilities and unsecured networks, such as public Wi-Fi, using them as doors through which they can walk their malware through. This is one of the reasons why it's important to consider whether or not it's worth logging into public Wi-Fi, instead of waiting until you're home to get online. IoT makes it easy for malware to move laterally within a network – such as jumping from your phone to your computer, if they're both logged in to the same Wi-Fi and connected to each other.

Sometimes malware can infiltrate your devices by implanting itself further up the supply chain. Legitimate software updates can sometimes be infected with malware without the provider's knowledge and be distributed to users around the world in the guise of a run-of-the-mill patch.

While it's not as common as it used to be, it's still possible to be infected with malware through physical media such as USBs, CDs and external hard drives. Always think twice before plugging an unfamiliar object into your computer or phone.

How do I know if I have malware? What are the signs?

Here are some symptoms of malware infections. Similarly to biological infections – one of these symptoms in isolation may not be cause for alarm, but a combination of two or more could point to a serious issue.

  • Poor performance – malware can significantly slow down your device by consuming system resources. This can also result in unexplained overheating.
  • Changes in settings – if your browser has been hijacked by malicious software you might notice when you log in that things aren't how you left them. Unfamiliar extensions should be investigated as quickly as possible.
  • Unusual network activity – malware might communicate with remote servers, and this will show up as unusual activity if you regularly monitor your network.
  • System modifications – new files or folders and unfamiliar background programs could all be a sign of malware.
  • Security alerts or pop-ups – if you have any kind of antivirus software in place it will likely warn you about the presence of malware. However, some malware can come in the form of pop-ups proclaiming the exact same thing.
  • Unexplained data loss or corruption – if things are going missing, becoming encrypted or corrupted and you don't know how or why, it could well be some kind of malware working its way through your system.
  • High CPU usage – if you notice any applications consuming unusually high levels of CPU, memory or bandwidth it could be a sign of malicious activity.
  • Revoked access or other unexplained account activity – as a way of compromising your personal information, malware may log you out of your accounts and change their settings while you're locked out.

Can malware affect mobile devices, such as iPhones, iPads and Android smartphones?

Mobile devices are definitely vulnerable to malware, even those produced by Apple – though they have historically been less prone to malware infections than other products.

Smartphones are particularly vulnerable to spyware and surveillance, as they tend to travel with us more than laptops and computers and in many ways deal with more intimate information. Location data, microphone or camera monitoring, and recording calls and messages are all sources of high-value sensitive data for any would-be criminals.

Malware can also be downloaded through smartphone apps. Malicious apps may contain spyware, adware, or other malware payloads – and they may trick users into downloading by mimicking reputable apps. It's important to only download apps from reliable sources, such as official app stores or brand websites.

If you manage your banking or business through smartphone apps, it's important to utilize safety features such as two-factor authentication wherever possible. This will make it more difficult for malware to compromise your data should your smartphone be infected.

How do I combat and remove malware?

When it comes to malware, prevention is the best cure. Putting robust cybersecurity measures in place across all of your devices will help to keep them safe and reduce the risk of infection. Here are the best preventative measures for trying to avoid malware and viruses.

  • Don't miss software updates. It's these patches and updates that provide solutions to the latest security flaws and fix bugs. By putting off your security update in the name of saving time, you may be leaving your device vulnerable to security breaches.
  • Use reputable antivirus software. Installing anti-malware software on your device will add an extra layer of protection. This software will be able to detect and remove malware infections, and regularly update you on the health of your device.
  • Exercise caution online. Be wary of unsolicited emails and suspicious links. Try to verify the legitimacy of an email with the sender before clicking any links or accepting any downloads.
  • Use strong passwords. Strong passwords, varied across your multiple accounts are harder to guess and compromise.
  • Consider encrypting sensitive data. If you have data that you're particularly concerned about protecting, why not consider encrypting it? Even if your device should fall into the wrong hands, encryption will continue to protect your data against unauthorized access attempts.
  • Back it up. Similarly, consider backing up your files to an external hard drive. This means that in the event of data loss due to malware, you have protected versions of your files kept separately to your device.

If you're late to the prevention party and you suspect your device may already be infected with malware there's no need to despair. Here's what you do.

  1. Disconnect from the Internet. This will prevent any malware on your device from communicating with external servers or spreading to other devices using your network, essentially trapping the malware in place. Turning your Wi-Fi off completely at the router and disabling any mobile data will help to isolate the malware further.
  2. If you're able to, restart your device in safe mode. Safe mode is where your device boots up with only the essential system processors running. This makes malware easier to identify, and less like looking for a needle in a haystack. Safe mode will look different depending on your device's operating system.
  3. Run an antivirus scan with your antivirus software. Run your antivirus software and see if it can detect and remove any threats. Make sure that your chosen software is able to run without Internet access.
  4. Delete any suspicious files and apps. Manually comb through your device and delete anything that seems suspicious. Pay particular attention to anything that you might have installed recently.
  5. Restore your device from your backup. If you have a recent backup of your data you can restore your device back to a clean slate – but, make sure you scan your backup for malware before restoring them. Otherwise you might simply reinfect your device.
  6. If all else fails, seek professional help. If you think removing the malware is beyond your ability, reach out to a cybersecurity expert. If you have antivirus software, your software provider will likely be able to supply you with technical support. Depending on the issue at hand they may be able to access your device remotely and remove the malware themselves, or talk you through the steps you need to take.

The future of malware protection

Hopefully as we reach the end of this article you feel armed with a better understanding of what malware is and the danger it can pose. Understanding how malware works and what makes you vulnerable to attacks is the first step to preventing them – but this is a process that never ends. As technology evolves so will cyberthreats, and it's important to stay on top of these developments to keep your devices and information safe.

It's likely that many of the future trends shaping viruses and malware will also be used by cybersecurity experts to counteract them, like digital antivenom. This might include the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), cloud-based solutions, and deception technologies such as decoys and honeypots.

One of the main things that will help in the advancement of malware protection will be collaboration between cybersecurity experts, researchers and governments. Sharing information and analysis will benefit everyone and help to foster a culture of cybersecurity awareness. This education, between individuals and industry partners alike, will help to reduce the effectiveness of malware and its deceptions.

If you're looking for something to shield your personal PC or your business, SUPERAntiSpyware are committed to providing nothing but the best malware protection software. Not only are we confident in the capabilities of our products, but we're on hand with unlimited technical support, making sure that our customers'needs are taken care of. Get in touch to find out more about our services today.